This site has small clusters of reef with beautiful coral and many blue-striped and yellow-back fusilier dashing around the coral. Turtles and barracuda are sighted here and sometimes nurse sharks and mantas. Generally, white-tip reef sharks are prowling around on the sandy bottom at 20 to 30 meters.
This thila is a long reef lying north to south on the outer edge of the atoll to the northeast of Madivaru. The sea tends to get choppy out here when there are wind and currents.
Divers can dive the length of the thila on either the east or the west side. Both are interesting with caves and overhangs at 25 to 30 meters. Scattered around the thila are large tuna, Napoleon and plenty of snapper, eagle rays, barracuda, and grey reef sharks are regularly seen. On the reef top, large coral rocks offer a change of scenery, and sometimes nurse sharks are seen among them.
On the outside of Madivaru is a big reef known as Beyru Madivaru. The reef becomes shallower at the southern end, and on the outside of this reef, hammerhead sharks are known to frequent the deeper waters.
In the channel to the south of Madivaru lies this narrow, 400-meter long thila running east to west. It is also called Toroka Thila. The reef top is about three to five meters in the center and 10 to 12 meters on the west side. The reef to the east is deeper and finishes off on an 18-meter plateau that turns towards the south. On the southern side are caves and overhangs at 22 to 26 meters. There are three points jutting off the main reef to the south. At the last point on the deep southeast corner are caves at 30 meters. Barracuda, white-tip and grey reef sharks, eagle rays and sometimes mantas and Napoleon can be found here.
Kari Beyru Thila – PROTECTED MARINE AREA
This is a long, narrow thila, stretching north to south down the eastern edge of the atoll. There are many interesting caves rich in corals. The east side slopes to 35 meters and the west to 25 meters. The northern end slopes steadily down to 30 meters with many large coral blocks on the top. Fish life is varied with tuna, snapper, white-tip and grey reef sharks and Napoleon. Also, stonefish, stingrays and sometimes mantas.
Fish life is varied with grey reef sharks and stonefish (seen above).
Bathalaa Maagaa Kanthila
A long, narrow spur, about 20 meters wide starts at Bathalaa Maagaa and extends for 500 meters northwards into Maagaa Kandu. The top gradually becomes deeper until reaching the bottom at 30 meters. The eastern side of the spur is the outside of the atoll and drops steeply from 20 meters. There are one or two small caves at the northern end on the outside. Visibility is usually better on the outside and barracuda, tuna, turtles, sharks, and sometimes eagle rays are quite likely to be seen here. The reef top is covered in a variety of coral. There are sponge balls with ascidians and hydroids at the deeper end while closer to the main reef are sea anemones and big porite corals – home to aggregations of sweetlips and bannerfish. Blue-dash, yellow-back and striped fusilier are all over the reef, and there are small schools of big-nose unicorn fish and snapper.
This is a good dive for beginner and intermediate divers, but care should be taken to allow sufficient air to return to the shallower end of the reef, especially in strong outgoing currents.
Maaya Thila – PROTECTED MARINE AREA
If Fish Head is the grey reef share capital of the Maldives, then Maaya Thila is the white-tip reef shark capital. Although grey reef sharks are common here, the smaller white-tips are the center of attention, with dozens of them circling the reef. Maaya Thila is about 80 meters in diameter and can easily be circumnavigated in one dive – if the current is favorable – although it is not uncommon for divers to spend the entire dive in one area to digest the incredible diversity of marine life. The top starts at six meters and the reef edge drops from 12 meters to depths of 30 meters and more. Several coral outcrops occur on the northwest and south sides. There are many caves and overhangs all around the thila.
At a big cave on the north side are a feast of fish ranging from the white-tips (which usually frequent the side of the reef where the current is stronger), dog-toothed tuna and great barracuda to blue-faced angelfish, Moorish idol, tailfin batfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, clown triggerfish and lionfish. There are also other delights for the careful observer like stonefish and anglerfish. A big rock on the south side has a one-meter-wide swim-through at 19 meters. On the reef, top are many fusiliers, and blue-striped snapper and a giant turtle are a regular around the reef. This dive is a fish-watchers delight, and the beautiful soft coral and gorgonians on the reef faces are a great attraction.
The beautiful soft coral and gorgonians (seen above) on the reef faces are a great attraction.
Diving boats usually tie a rope to the reef on the up-current side or at a permanent mooring on the reef, so a controlled descent during strong currents is possible. Divers should aim to return to their rope with plenty of air where the remaining time can be spent nearby on the reef top. Diving boats come and go so don’t forget which rope belongs to your boat.
The Halaveli wreck, also known as the Razza wreck, is a 38-meter cargo vessel sunk by the Halaveli diving center in 1991. It sits upright with the bow facing north, 40 meters from the reef. The deck is at 20 meters, and the bottom is on the sand at 28 meters. Apart from the wreck itself, the main attraction is four large stingrays that have been trained to take food. It took instructors from Halaveli six months to train them, and now they are quick to surround divers in anticipation of a free feed. Three of the rays are female black-spotted stingrays up to 1.5 meters in size. The fourth is a brown female ray of similar size. Stingrays naturally feed by smothering and crushing their prey and sucking the contents into their mouths on the underside of their belly, so the rays tend to swim over divers, often brushing against them. A small turtle has made a home for itself on the wreck, and a couple of large morays have also taken up residence. Some coral has already taken hold, most noticeably some pretty soft coral on the telegraph mast.
The Halaveli wreck, also known as the Razza wreck, is a 38-meter cargo vessel sunk by the Halaveli diving center in 1991.
The rays are most active in the afternoon and can sometimes become quite aggressive in their attempt to obtain food. Divers should keep their hands away from the ray’s mouths as they suck so hard they will draw the fingers inside. Divers should not attempt to ride to chase the rays as at least one diver has been injured while grabbing hold. They should only be fed by instructors with knowledge of their habits.
“There is a little fish about a foot long, or thereabouts in length, square at the four corners, and covered with a shell of one piece, with only the point of its tail turned back to serve it for a helm. It is the most delicate eating imaginable; the flesh is white, firm and without any bones. You would say it was chicken, so good it is. The larger the rays, however, the skin, and with the dried skin, after it is well stretched, they make their drums, using none other.”
Francois Pyrard, Voyages, 1602-1607
The wing-like fins of the stingray extend forward to encompass the head. A pair of large openings behind the eyes enables them to draw in water which they pump out through their mouth. This disperses the sand allowing them to feed. Stingrays eat shells and crabs, but also fish. They have a serrated spine on the upper side at the base of the tail. The stingray can swing its tail sideways and upward and forward over its head, driving the spine into the limb or the body of the victim. When the skin covering over the serrated spine is ruptured, venom escapes along grooves into the perforated wound. The skin of the stingray is still used on the boduberu, the drum used in traditional dance music, and for the tari, which is like a tambourine.
Bodu Thila (East)
To the east of Halaveli in Fussaru Kandu are three thilas within a small area of 500 meters. Sometimes referred to as Tin Thila, the largest is Bodu Thila and is 250 meters long. The others are Medhu Thila and Kuda Thila. Bodu Thila is the closest to the outside rim of the atoll and has an amazing variety of marine life with spectacular cliffs and overhangs on the south side. With an outgoing current, divers usually start at a large sandy bay at the western end of the thila beginning at five meters.
On this sand slope is a big colony of shrimp goby which appear tamer than at most other locations. If divers approach the goby very carefully, they are quite likely to see the shrimp at the mouth of the goby’s burrow. Along the cliffs walls and overhangs are thick coverings of large sea fans and black coral bushes. On the lower slopes are green coral trees. At the southeast end is a big cave dropping from the top of the reef to 25 meters where there are sea fans with feather stars, large schools of big-eye trevally, humpback snapper, blue-dash fusilier and many other fish swimming out from the wall. Many of the ledges start deep at 25 meters of 30 meters and spiral upwards into the cliff wall. On the reef top is a lumpy landscape of porite coral full of Christmas tree worms.
On the reef top is a lumpy landscape of porite coral full of Christmas tree worms.
Medhu Thila & Kuda Thila
These two thilas are much smaller, and divers can easily swim around the 30-meter wide Kuda Thila. Depths are between five and 25 meters. There are small caves and some steep walls on both thilas and heavy concentrations of marine life, including big-eye trevally, sharks and stingrays. On the reef, tops are many species of damselfish, like the three-spot humbug, also butterflyfish, and angelfish.
Of all the resorts in the Maldives, Ellaidhoo has one of the best and most convenient house reef dives. Divers can step off of the jetty or swim from the beach to a 750-meter-long wall dive studded with caves full of sea fans, hard corals, sponges, feather stars and soft coral. For most of the reef, the wall is undercut below 20 meters to the sand bottom at 25 meters to 30 meters. Most of the caves are between 10 and 15 meters, some being just big enough to swim into without damaging the coral. Near the jetty is a 15-meter-long wreck lying upside down with the bow facing west in 32 meters of water. A big grouper is usually found here.
To the west of the jetty are no fewer than 15 caves between 11 and 14 meters, two are which are 20 meters long. One has a significant number of large sea fans and whips. Many of the caves are full of soldierfish and squirrelfish, also masked bannerfish, long-nosed butterflyfish, Moorish idol, triggerfish, oriental sweetlips, midnight snapper, and blue-faced angelfish, to name a few. At both the west and east ends of the reef are excellent Acropora and porite coral on the top reef. At the western end in four to five meters are schooling bannerfish. Divers can also see lobsters, Napoleon, stingrays, morays, and nudibranchs. Ellaidhoo divers can dive the house reef whenever they like and rarely complain of being bored.
Divers can also see lobsters, Napoleon, stingrays, morays, and nudibranchs (seen above).
Kandholhudhoo Thila lies to the north of the island of Kandholhudhoo and eagle rays, turtles, and sometimes manta rays can be seen here.
Orimas Thila – PROTECTED MARINE AREA
Orimas Thila is sometimes called Maagaa Thila after the island to the north. The northern side of this 100-meter-long reef has a superb landscape with several distinctive features that make it stand out from many other sites. It has a long narrow crack in the reef top at six meters which is overloaded with smaller marine life. The reef face is steep and jagged and has a long cave that meanders along the reef between the depths of 15 to 18 meters. The cave is covered in fine weed-like soft coral, sea fans and black coral bushes. At the eastern end are large coral rocks with crevices and canyons.
Further to the east, the reef descends gradually to 30 meters. Sea anemones are prevalent all over the reef, but a big patch is concentrated on the eastern side at around 15 meters. On the southeast side is another cave at 25 meters with black coral bushes and nudibranchs.
The southern side of the thila slopes gradually to 30 meters in a uniform fashion. Schools of blue triggerfish and blue-striped snapper are found at the western end. On the reef, top are stands of fire coral, staghorn coral, and large table coral. There are fish of every description and most noticeably flutemouth.
There are fish of every description and most noticeably flutemouth.
This is an excellent site for divers who are prepared to take their time and concentrate on the smaller fish and interesting features of the reef. Because it is a small reef, extra care should be taken not to disturb the marine life or damage the fragile coral with fins.
Fish Head (Mushimasmingili Thila) – PROTECTED MARINE AREA
Fish Head fits the classic definition of a thila, being a large isolated flat-top reef rising sharply from the inner atoll floor at 40 to 50 meters to around 10 meters from the surface. The presence of a large school of grey reef sharks, combined with the favorable underwater scenery and the wide variety of marine life, have given this reef the reputation of being among the ten best dive sites in the world.
Ari Atoll fishermen have traditionally fished for sharks at Fish Head and divers were first drawn here by the regular appearance of fishing dhonis at this site. Sharks were taken mainly for their oil, but with shark fins commanding high prices on the Asian market, sharks are in big demand. Ari Atoll fishermen have been reluctant to give up one of their most productive fishing grounds for the sake of diving tourists. With this backdrop of conflicting interests, the government stepped in in 1995 to declare Fish Head a Protected Marine Area to ensure that it continues to cater for the expectations of divers.
The square-shaped reef is about 80 meters wide and can be circled in one dive if divers wish, providing the current is not too strong. There are ledges and caves at different depths around much of the reef, and for the most part, there is a big undercut from about 25 to 30 meters before the reef tapers to the bottom slopes. The north and the northwest sides have a particularly interesting landscape at reasonably shallow depths, making it ideal for the less experienced diver, while at depth are caves with all the usual features including sea fans and black coral bushes. Divers tend to stay shallow at Fish Head, hovering around the reef edge at about 15 meters as this gives the best all-round view of a family of about 20 resident grey reef sharks.
The sharks are usually seen on the up-current side of the reef. The advantage that Fish Head has over other shark watching sites is that the habits of the sharks can be observed at close range from a secure position on any part of the reef. On occasions, sharks can even be seen at cleaner stations where they expose their glistening teeth to the fastidious cleaner wrasse. Photographers will get few better opportunities to photograph these grateful predators than at Fish Head.
Sharks can even be seen at cleaner stations where they expose their glistening teeth to the fastidious cleaner wrasse.
The abundant fish life begins at the surface, where the water boils with the silver flashing of fusilier. Below, divers are greeted by a family of Napoleon, one of them more than 150 cm long. There are many pelagics here including giant trevally a schooling barracuda, which circle like a pack of wolves anticipating a kill. The reef has contrasting features, and one favorable impression in deeper water is the straight wall on the northern side where a field of large sea fans sprout from the reef edge.
At times there may be several boats tied to the thila and many divers. Take note of which boat is yours and return with enough air to make a safety stop on the way up. Take care not to kick or break coral.
One of the earliest records of sharks in the Maldives comes from Francois Pyrard, at the beginning of the 17th century, who sets the tone of legend by describing a certain fish that “eat and devour men which God sends to punish them for their sins.”
Pyrard wrote: “The Maldivians have assured me that these fish go in troops and have many a time attacked little boats and fishermen wherries, and capsizing these, have devoured men. You see there many of the people that have lost a leg or an arm, or a hand, or have been wounded elsewhere in their bodies by the bites of these fish. I have seen many at the Maldives thus maimed; indeed, I have seen some of these fish caught with whole limbs of men in their bellies.”
In Pyrard’s day, those most at risk may have been divers collecting bait fish without masks, but Pyrard’s observations are surprising when we consider that reports of shark attacks on swimmers or divers today are extremely rare and limited to people feeding or provoking sharks.
The greatest threat to sharks in the Maldives today is human. Demand for shark-fin in the Asian market has reduced the number of sharks in many areas to a fraction of what they once were. Maldivian fishermen can earn a sizeable income from the shark fins, yet the long-term cost to the environment of losing these high order predators cannot be calculated. Shark fishing inside the atolls is forbidden by Maldivian law, but shark fishing outside the atolls is allowed. These laws are abused, and there is little control over what fins are obtained ‘legitimately’ on fishing lines outside the atolls. Shark jaws and shark teeth are also popular tourist items, but little thought is often given to the consequences of purchasing these items from the tourist shops.
Seeing sharks in the water is much more desirable from a diver’s point of view. With new resorts proposed for the outer atolls and safari boats expanding their range of operations, a total ban on shark fishing would appear to be the only way to ensure the Maldives diving tourism market can be maintained and strengthened. Providing financial incentives and alternatives and alternative job opportunities for displaced fishermen may be one of the requirements of such a ban, but the benefits would be international recognition and a thriving diving tourist market.
(Source: Dive Maldives: A Guide to the Maldives Archipelago. Tim Godfrey. Atoll Editions, 2015)